Stand up comedian - improviser - writer
  • "So THAT'S what it does" - The Return of Phil Coulson

    Sun 18 May 2014  ·  1:28AM
    My thoughts on the first season of Marvel's Agents of SHIELD.

    WARNING! THIS POST CONTAINS MANY MANY MAJOR SPOILERS FOR BOTH THE TV SHOW, AND THE MARVEL MOVIES.

     

    In 2012, I went to see The Avengers (I still refuse to call it by its stupid UK title), and was thoroughly enjoying it, right up until the moment where Agent Coulson was shanked by Loki. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the rest of the film, but I watched the final act in a state of shock, unable to believe that the rumour I’d heard was true – Phil Coulson was dead.

    Subsequent viewings have made this incident much easier to take, and I can appreciate it now as the necessary plot point that it was, but the thing that really made it easier to swallow was the announcement of Marvel’s first TV show, Agents of SHIELD, to be headlined by the now apparently not dead, Clark Gregg. #CoulsonLives indeed.

    Rarely has an actor/character connected so deeply with a fan base, that, when killed off, the fans have demanded his immediate resurrection (before the film had even finished airing in some cases). This is at least in part because the fans recognise Clark Gregg as one of us. He (both as himself, and in character) has been the on-screen fan-boy, binding the Marvel Cinematic Universe together as he travelled from mission to mission and movie to movie; he was the everyman that connected the audience to the superhuman characters. In fact, Gregg has said that, when filming his Avengers death scene, there are several takes which feature him trying to change his fate, uttering the line “but... I’m the glue!”

    So, the show. Good things were announced; Joss Whedon as executive producer, and director of the pilot; Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon as head-writers; and a stunningly good looking cast (as if anything else where likely). Plus, the repeated statement from Jeph Loeb (head of Marvel TV), that this show is about the people who work around the superheroes: the normal folks who investigate super-heroic or super-villainous occurrences – it’s not about the superheroes themselves. I was fine with that, as it made sense to me; the show had to stand on its own, and couldn’t rely upon cameos from the movie stars if it was going to be successful.

    From the outset, I really enjoyed the show, though if you believe the corner of the internet that I hang out in, that was the minority opinion, but I really did. I think it helped that I hadn’t expected existing Marvel characters to comprise the main cast. The absence of the likes of Nick Fury, Maria Hill, Clay Quartermain, Barbara Morse, etc, didn’t strike me as a letdown, because the show was (and is) about expanding the MCU. These new characters seemed pleasantly engaging, with enough back-story yet to be explored, and there was the ever present mystery of how Coulson was still alive.

    It’s possible that, as a writer, I was more patient with the show than some, because I could see that they were trying to set up something long term. By contrast, the twitter-generation, with its frustratingly short attention spans, just wanted to know what happened to Agent Coulson NOW; but those people don’t appreciate the beauty of what television can do. A twenty-two episode television series is a vastly different animal to a movie; you don’t have to get into the narrative arc so quickly, and you can take more time to establish character, so that when the big events do kick-off, you care more about the people involved. This is especially important when you’re introducing new characters into a pre-existing universe, and had they not done that, you wouldn’t care so much about Ward’s betrayal, FitzSimmons nearly dying, or May dishing out multiple ass-kickings. Those early episodes in the season are what make the later episodes so impactful. A television series is to a novel, what a movie is to poetry – it requires a bigger commitment, and people are less-inclined to consider its artistic merit. However, I think the long-term reward of a good TV show is actually better than what you’d take from a good movie.

    And yes, after the Christmas break, with the foundations firmly established, the show moved up a gear. Appearances by Jaimie Alexander as Lady Sif and Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill were welcome treats, allowing time for the development of secondary characters that wouldn’t usually get that level of exposure in the movies alone. The introduction of more of SHIELD’s original comic-book characters helped expand the organisation, with more screen time for (the frankly under-used) Maximiliano Hernández as Agent Jasper Sitwell, Titus Welliver as Agent Blake, Saffron Burrows as Agent Victoria Hand, and the wonderful Bill Paxton as Agent John Garrett. The show was doing its job, fleshing out the universe, introducing minor characters, and linking up the movies.

    And then the twist. With the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, came the revelation that Hydra had deeply infiltrated SHIELD, and no-one could be trusted. You assume that everyone on Coulson’s team is clean, but then Agent May is up to something, and Skye is still an enigma, and what if Coulson himself had been influenced as part of his resurrection?

    For me, the biggest game-changer is the revelation that Agent Sitwell was Hydra. I’m still not happy about it a month and half later – I understand why it happened (the CA:TWS writers needed someone who’d been part of the MCU for a long time to demonstrate how deep the infiltration was) but I still feel like it was the wrong choice; Sitwell was one of few original comic-book SHIELD agents to have made it to the movies, and he’d never had any ties to Hydra in the books. To have him be a traitor, and then get assassinated, for convenience’s sake seemed a bit lazy to me, but hey-ho, I’ll just have to get #SitwellLives trending in time for this year’s San Diego Comic Con, I guess!

    The show returned a week later, and the true scope of the infiltration is revealed: Coulson’s old friend Garrett (another comic book SHIELD agent with no previous ties to Hydra, by the way) is not only a Hydra double-agent, but he’s also the mysterious Clairvoyant the team have been hunting. He’s arrested by Coulson’s team, and taken by Victoria Hand to The Fridge (a SHIELD containment facility), joined on the plane by an apparently furious Grant Ward, intent on locking up his old mentor personally. Except, in the biggest twist of the show so far, Ward kills Hand (another death that bugs me – I’ll come to that), and frees Garrett. Ward was Hydra all along.

    This reveal tied the whole series together; everything that happened early on, from Project Centipede, to the creation of Deathlok, to the experiments with Gravitonium, were all part of a larger Hydra scheme. And a successful one at that, as the SHIELD organisation lay in pieces, burned to the ground by Hydra’s deception.

    There was also the revelation that Coulson was resurrected by an injection of Alien blood (most likely a Kree – again, I’ll come to this too), which was also given to Skye and Garrett.

    It’s all connected, not just to the movies, but to itself; the show is truly capable of standing on its own, as a key part of the MCU.

    So the series ends with Nick Fury asking Coulson to rebuild SHIELD from scratch, as he’s the only one that Fury trusts to do it. With Phil now rechristened as Director Coulson (ignore the confusing brand-loyalty issue created by his new acronym), and Agent Triplett brought in to replace Ward as the team’s specialist, the group arrive at a new secret base to discover Patton Oswalt’s Agent Koenig is somehow still alive despite being killed by Ward a few episodes back. Except this Koenig has a different first name, even if he does have the same everything else (from appearance, to mannerisms, to dialogue). Hopefully, this means that Oswalt will be a series regular in season 2 (I love Patton!), and I’m one of the many who assume that his carbon-copy-esque performance as this new Koenig means he’s playing the first official Life Model Decoy (LMD) that we’ve seen in the MCU.

    Oh, and then Coulson starts drawing the same weird thing on the wall that Garrett was drawing, so that’s one of several plot threads going forward.

    So what next? Well, first and foremost, I’m willing to bet we’ll see something resembling Coulson’s wall-engraving in Guardians of the Galaxy this summer. I’m guessing it’s a star-map to the Kree home-world, or something along those lines, and that this is just the latest example of Coulson being the glue that holds the MCU together (because Guardians has the potential to be kinda stand-alone without some form of link).

    When the series comes back, I imagine we’ll shift focus to Skye’s mystery, learning more about her parents, and the apparent darkness within her. Rumours abound that she’s one of the Inhumans, but I’m happy to wait and see on that front (remember when everyone thought Coulson would turn out to be the Vision? Ahh, how naive we were...).

    I’ve also seen a suggestion that Coulson is becoming Captain Mar-Vell, but that seems like another “He’s the Vision!” wishful thinking concept to me.

    I’d also guess that we’ll see some form of redemption for Agent Ward going forward – the season finale went out of its way to imply that Ward wasn’t truly loyal to Hydra, but rather to Garrett specifically. With him gone, his loyalty may well shift back to Coulson, or at least, there’ll be some form of him attempting to regain the team’s trust (also, just as a wild guess – I wouldn’t be surprised if Ward dies in the season 2 finale, as part of a sacrifice move to save the rest of the team).

    There’s a few things I’d certainly like to see going forward, which seem entirely plausible based on where the show is now.

    1)      VICTORIA HAND LIVES.
    I don’t believe she’s actually dead. Yes, Ward shot her in the face, but I don’t think it was that simple. Oh, he definitely pulled the trigger; I’m not suggesting Ward’s innocent – I just don’t believe Agent Hand would have ever actually got on the plane in the first place. I’m convinced that Ward shot an LMD.
    Earlier in that episode, Hand said she only trusted a few people in the wake of Hydra’s sleepers being activated. Why, then, would she agree to get on a small aircraft with Garrett, and his fully-armed former protégé? She wouldn’t. She’d never trust Ward in a million years. I think asking him to shoot Garrett was a test – had Ward done so, then he’d have passed, and Hand would have trusted him; as he didn’t, an LMD got destroyed, and the real Hand knew that Ward was loyal to Hydra.
    On the strength of that theory, Victoria Hand could return at any time in the next season, and the writers wouldn’t have prematurely killed off another character that originates in the comic books. It would also provide great tension between her and Ward going forward.

    2)      SHIELD STAFFS BACK UP (WITH SOME NEW FAMILIAR FACES)
    With Coulson’s new directive to rebuild SHIELD, he’ll have to bring in new agents. This, I believe, is the reason we haven’t seen certain comic characters before now – they’d have gone the same way as Maria Hill, Sitwell, Garrett, etc, and left or betrayed SHIELD in the wake of CA:TWS. Coulson is now free to recruit the likes of Barbara Morse (Mockingbird), Daisy Johnson (Quake), Clay Quartermain, Jessica Drew (Spider-woman, and a former brain-washed Hydra operative), and the rehiring of Sharon Carter (Agent 13 – assuming Revenge can loan Emily VanCamp for an episode or two). With those five joining Coulson, May, Skye, Triplett, Fitz, Simmons, Koenig, Hand, and (possibly) Ward, SHIELD’s ranks would have the beginnings of their rebuild. Plus, you know, hire some red-shirts for quick-disposal.

    3)      FORMER SHIELD-OPERATIVES DROP BY
    If SHIELD is to be rebuilt, it doesn’t seem unreasonable for further cameos from Maria Hill, and Nick Fury to happen, but also, drop-ins from Black Widow and Hawkeye (especially the latter, having not appeared in Phase 2 anywhere else pre-Age of Ultron). Where was Hawkeye during Hydra’s uprising? I’m willing to bet there won’t be time for that question to be answered in Age of Ultron, so why not answer it in Agents of SHIELD?

    4)      AGENTS OF SWORD
    In the comics, the Sentient World Observation and Response Department  is a sub-division of SHIELD, which specialises in keeping the earth safe from extra-terrestrial attack or invasion. I’m surprised they haven’t turned up sooner to be honest, especially considering the Chitauri invasion during The Avengers. It would be a great opportunity to introduce characters such as Abigail Brand (who, it occurs to me as I type this, could actually be Skye – extra-terrestrial father, etc), and more crucially, Carol Danvers (Ms Marvel).  Admittedly, this might stretch the budget of a network TV show, but hey – Star Trek was set in space EVERY week.

    5)      SOMEONE CALL FOR A LAWYER!

    With the news that DC/Warner Brothers have cast Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, I find myself thinking that I’d still very much like to see Gina Carano in a Comic Book Movie. She strikes me as pretty much perfect casting for Jennifer Walters (She-Hulk). If she were to appear on Agents of SHIELD, I’d want it to be pre-blood-transfusion, where she’s just a normal laywer, and the cousin of Bruce Banner. That way, she’s already placed in the universe, ready to pop up in the much-rumoured third Hulk movie. She could even get shot during the course of the episode, in preparation for her future film debut (in a very similar way to Franklin Hall’s origin story in “The Asset”).

    6)      DEFENDERS CROSSOVER

    Marvel have four new shows coming to Netflix next year, centred around Daredevil, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, and Jessica Jones, before culminating in a mini-series crossover event called The Defenders (even though the original Defenders line up was Hulk, Dr Strange, and Namor, but let’s not dwell on that...). With these shows now confirmed as taking place in the MCU, it would surely be a wasted opportunity for them not to include some form of crossover with the Agents of SHIELD. Just one more way for Coulson to be the glue!

    That’s just my wishlist though – if any aspect of that comes to pass, I’ll be delighted.

    As for the season 2 big bad, I reckon it’ll be someone we’ve already seen. Raina seems like an obvious candidate, but she strikes me more as a pilot-fish, swimming alongside the real villain. The other candidates include Ian Quinn, Franklin Hall, and whoever Skye’s father turns out to be. The latter seems most likely, as Quinn will probably be killed by Graviton after briefly attempting to serve/control him, so he’s not a threat, and I’m not even sure if Graviton will appear again in MAOS – he’s an Avenger-level threat (and indeed, was what caused the team to come together in The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes cartoon). So yeah, let’s say it’ll be Skye’s father.

    The first season was given a tough-time by Marvelites, but those who stuck with it got their reward, and I know many who’d given up on it, who are now going back to watch it properly. I’m very excited about the show going forward, and I hope that it continues to add to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Its momentum has been gathered now, so the Skye’s the limit (...no, I’m not even sorry).